Science, Health & Tech

We cover these essential linchpins of the Pittsburgh regional economy, and how they impact residents' personal health and employment. 

An unusually hot and dry summer in the Pittsburgh area may have had some hoping that it would lead to some relief from ragweed allergies, unfortunately the hot temperatures and lack of rain had little to no impact on the plant, according to Dr. Barry Asman, an allergist with the Allergy and Asthma Care Center in Monroeville.  “Ragweed has been growing all summer long. For some reason, the ragweed seems to be drought resistant, whereas my yard has not been drought resistant.

Pitt Study Shows 'Decoy' Can Fight Cancer

Aug 14, 2012

An injection of 'decoy' material into human tumors helped reduce certain cancer activity, according to a new study from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

Pitt Professor of Otolaryngology Jennifer Grandis said the decoy targets a protein called "Signal Transducer and Activator of Transcription 3" (STAT3), which is difficult to treat because it's found mainly in the nuclei of cancer cells.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health has given a $983,783 grant to Carnegie Mellon University to fund two studies of a new digital scanner that could improve cancer diagnostics.

The two-year project will compare the scanner's capabilities with the current methods of diagnosing a tumor's status by placing a biopsy under a microscope. CMU principal investigator Dr. Robert Murphy said each study will focus on the diagnosis of a specific cancer.

"They call it either the gray tsunami or the silver tsunami," said Linda Raimondi, coordinator of Geriatric Education at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC).  "This is a problem all over the world."  Raimondi was referring to the growing elderly population.

Most teachers are preparing for the upcoming school year by organizing markers, pencils, and notebooks, but others will spend the next few weeks fiddling with wires, sensors and motherboards. Dozens of teachers across the region will help their students build robots this fall with the new “Hummingbird” robotics craft kit created by a local startup company.

A Robert Morris University (RMU) professor has created a computer simulation that showed incredibly small particles, or nanoparticles, could be manipulated into carrying a chemotherapy drug directly to a cancerous tumor. Since current chemotherapy drugs have more of an indirect route, the drug kills healthy cells as well as the cancerous ones, causing severe side effects, and limiting the dosage that can be given to patients.

Local residents are generally happy to live in the Pittsburgh area, according to a survey released on Tuesday by the University of Pittsburgh and PittsburghTODAY. However, African-American are not so pleased.

Roughly 1,800 survey respondents in the 32-county Pittsburgh region ranked the local quality of life at 7.8 out of 10. The national average is 7.4 out of 10.

NASA's newest and most advanced rover, Curiosity, is due to land on the surface of Mars at about 1:00 AM Monday, August 6th. The Carnegie Science Center and Buhl Planetarium is marking the occasion with mid-day, hour-long programs on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday featuring NASA news briefings, animated videos and Q&A sessions with Planetarium staff.

More than 1,800 people from all 50 states and nearly 40 countries are in Pittsburgh discussing ways to enhance communication for individuals with severe speech problems.

Last Sep­tem­ber, Chesa­peake Energy CEO Aubrey McClen­don declared to a Philadel­phia energy con­fer­ence that the prob­lem of methane migrat­ing through the ground near nat­ural gas drilling sites had been fixed. "Prob­lem iden­ti­fied. Prob­lem solved," he told an industry-heavy crowd at the Philadel­phia Con­ven­tion Center.

Nearly a year later, Brad­ford County res­i­dent Michael Leighton is wor­ried about the flam­ma­ble gas seep­ing into his woods.

Dr. Peter Shaw, Director of the Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology (AYA) Program at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, said that cancer patients 15-40 years old have had inferior survival rates over the past three decades.

"One of the reasons [for that] is the young adult populations and adolescents are less likely to be in clinical trials than pediatric patients and also older adult patients," Shaw said.

Clean Indoor Air Act, 4 Years Later

Jul 26, 2012

The House Democratic Policy Committee heard testimony from community members, experts, and business owners advocating for the expansion of the Clean Indoor Air Act (CIAA) that went into effect in Pennsylvania beginning in September 2008.

The CIAA allows establishments to permit smoking if they apply and qualify for an exemption. Some taverns, cigar bars, and tobacco shops can all qualify. As of December, more than 2,800 establishments in the commonwealth were exempt from the smoking ban. 60% of bars in Allegheny County allow smoking.

The Congressional Natural Gas Caucus holds a hearing this morning to examine job growth in the natural gas industry — more specifically, what opportunities and potential challenges exist to growing American jobs.

"We're talking now about 1.6 million direct jobs from natural gas, 600,000 new jobs in 2010 alone. Overall we're looking at about 2.8 million jobs, a fairly stable job sector for the next 20-25 years from this natural gas development and use, and it's an exciting aspect of the United States," said Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA-18), co-chair of the caucus.

The days of "snail mail" may be in the past for Pennsylvania laboratories, with most now sending test results electronically. About 93% of the state's 516 independent laboratories and critical care hospital-associated labs participated in a survey conducted earlier this year by the Pennsylvania eHealth Collaborative. Nearly 80% of them confirmed they are electronically submitting data at the present time.

In 2009 the state was awarded $17.1 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help establish an electronic exchange of health information.

More than 25 million people in the U.S. are living with Type 2 Diabetes. That's about 8.3% of the population, but there is one group experiencing higher rates.

"If you look at blacks over the age of 20, non-Hispanic blacks, almost 19% have diabetes," said Mim Seidel, a registered dietician with the Food Studies Program at Chatham University.

State Representative Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) has introduced legislation that would allow more Pennsylvanians to be insured through Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. If his measure is passed, medical coverage would be expanded to include residents who earn less than 133% of the federal poverty level.

State Prison Uses Landfill Methane for Power

Jul 18, 2012

The state prison in Somerset County is using methane gas from a local landfill to generate the electricity and steam that power the penitentiary.

Though the methane-to-electricity plant has been online since January, officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections dedicated the plant Tuesday in memory of the late DOC Operations Director Robert Calik.

With an estimated cost-savings of $68 million over the next fifteen years, the plant would pay for itself and more.

With the recent record-setting temperatures across the region, senior centers throughout the city of Pittsburgh have extended their hours of operation to provide a respite to elderly residents.

Pittsburgh senior citizens 60 years of age or older can find relief from the heat in one of the Cooling Centers when temperatures reach a "real feel" of 90 degrees or warmer.

Since the beginning of the month, record daily high temperatures have been set four times: 94° F on July 1; 97° F on July 4; 98° F on July 6; and 99° F on July 7.

A bill passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature and signed by Governor Tom Corbett requires insurance companies to cover the cost of general anesthesia for young children and patients with disabilities.

"If they can't be handled in a normal dental setting then their situation just gets worse and worse and worse, and then you have to deal with infection and all sorts of things that have occurred because a small cavity wasn't taken care of," said Dr. Bernie Dishler, president of the Pennsylvania Dental Association.

Tour de Frack Bicyclists Come Through Pittsburgh

Jul 13, 2012

Anti-Marcellus Shale cycling activists known as the Tour de Frack will come through Pittsburgh Sunday and hold a reception at the Pump House in Homestead at 7:30 PM with entertainment by local musicians, including Mike Stout.

Child Abuse Signs and Signals

Jul 13, 2012

Thursday's report by Judge Louis Freeh encouraged citizens to be more agressive in reporting sexual abuse. Joan Mills, manager of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System's "A Child's Place," said she hopes it encourages people to speak up about suspicions they might have.

Highmark Stresses Low Readmission Rates

Jul 12, 2012

Come fall, the federal government's Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) agencies will no longer provide incentives for hospitals with low numbers of patients who are readmitted to the hospital after 30 days of discharge. Despite that, Highmark is continuing an emphasis on low readmission rates by requiring the majority of hospitals participating in its pay-for-performance Quality Blue plan to report readmission numbers in 2013.

Page Babbit, Director of Provider Engagement at Highmark, said the program has many goals, but a main purpose is reducing readmissions.

The Allegheny County Health Department stands to lose more than $625,000 in state funding this budget year.

The state's allocations to municipal health departments across the state were all cut by the same percentage, according to ACHD Acting Director Ron Voorhees. The impending cuts would amount to about 1.6% of ACHD's yearly budget of $46.6 million.

The federal government is asking why Pennsylvania's Medicaid rolls have dropped over the past year, and is suggesting that some people might have been kicked off improperly. Carey Miller, spokeswoman for the PA Department of Public Welfare (DPW), said the belief is that the department is in compliance with the federal rules in regards to the redetermination of clients enrolled in the Medicaid program.

"We do not believe that there have been any terminations in error, but will continue to review and fix any errors that we are made aware of," said Miller.

The Allegheny County Board of Health postponed a vote on new air pollution regulations on Wednesday, in order to open the measure for public comments.

For newly permitted sites only, the proposed "air toxics" regulations would govern any potentially harmful industrial emissions not already restricted by the federal Clean Air Act. While the rules don't apply to existing facilities, current air quality conditions would be taken into account when determining if a new site would harm public health.

Snow and rain may no longer be an excuse to avoid driving at night. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a smart headlight system designed to help improve visibility during inclement weather.

The new technology, as demonstrated in laboratory tests, prevents distracting and dangerous glare that results from headlight beams reflecting off raindrops and snowflakes.

An unusually dry season has caused water in the Youghiogheny Lake to drop five feet below the normal level, forcing some recreational areas to close sooner than expected. The Mill Run Recreational Area is expected to close this week, while the Tub Run Camping Area will more than likely close next week.

Werner Loehlein, Chief of Water Management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Pittsburgh region, said minimal snowfall this past year has been a contributing factor to the low water levels.

Seven more communities in the Pittsburgh area have banned tobacco and smoking in their parks, playgrounds, and other recreational areas. Currently, 34 of the 130 municipalities in Allegheny County are a part of the Young Lungs at Play program.

Searching For Savings, Drivers Turn To Natural Gas

Jul 5, 2012

Whether it's men­tal, writ­ten on an enve­lope or metic­u­lously doc­u­mented in a spread­sheet, a list of pros and cons often plays a role in the pur­chase of a new car.

What's the mileage like? How safe is it? How's it look?

If a shop­per was weigh­ing whether or not to buy a nat­ural gas-fueled car, the top item on the "pro" side would with­out a doubt be the cost of fuel: right now the gallon-equivalent of com­pressed nat­ural gas costs less than half as much as a gal­lon of gasoline.

The next time someone suggests going out for a drink, you may want to take them up on their offer because it could improve your friendship. A new study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh reveals moderate alcohol consumption in a social setting can increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotions while enhancing bonding among peers.

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